The Island Far Away: Exploring Britain's Pitcairn Island
On the 225th anniversary of the famous Bounty mutineers' landing, Jad Davenport documents the remote beauty of Pitcairn Island, their legendary South Pacific hideaway.
The volcanic cliffs of Pitcairn Island soar a thousand feet out of the South Pacific.
"You can see why the mutineers came here," says the captain. I'm on the bridge of the New Zealand freighter that resupplies Pitcairn with food, medicine, and generator fuel four times a year, and carries rare travelers to this distant spot. The island, halfway between Panama and New Zealand, right in the heart of the South Pacific Ocean, is too rugged for an airport and unreachable by helicopter.
"The island is the perfect hiding place." The morning sun paints serrated ridges with light, and I can see jade forests, a strange mix of coconut palms and pine trees. "Even if the Admiralty knew that Fletcher Christian and his men were hiding out on Pitcairn Island, they'd never have been able to find it," he says. "It was mischarted by 188 nautical miles."
I've come to the most remote inhabited island in the world on the trail of a mystery. It's been 225 years since the swashbuckling first mate of the Bounty, who seized Her Majesty's ship, hid away on Pitcairn with a dozen Tahitian women and a handful of men. More than 200 books and half a dozen films have celebrated their story; Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, and Mel Gibson have immortalized Mr. Christian on the silver screen. But the storylines all end with the mutineers intentionally sinking their ship off Pitcairn Island. Staring at the wave-thundered shores, too steep to accommodate a harbor, I can't help but think: What wonders await on this island today?
"Here comes your lift," says the captain, looking through his binoculars. I squint into the morning sun and spot an open boat threading the silver swells like a needle. "I'll see you in four days," he says. And then he laughs. "Or next year, if you miss the ship."
"You think it was the men who made it possible for everyone to survive on Pitcairn?" Meralda Warren swings her cutlass (a machete to the outside world) through the foot-thick stalk of a banana tree. It collapses in half. Meralda, a stout, motherly woman with short gray hair, heaves a ripe bunch of bananas on the front basket of her ATV and shakes her head at me. I've made the mistake of marveling aloud at how the men from the Bounty not only managed to survive on Pitcairn Island, but also thrive. Meralda is a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian's Tahitian wife, Miamiti. Her language is sprinkled with phrases that would make a Marine blush. For the next four days, while the islanders unload mail, medicine, food, and fuel from the freighter offshore, Meralda and her spirited mother, Mavis, are hosting me in their home steeped in Bounty lore. The ship's bell sits in her garden, and Meralda pounds out tapa—bark cloth—with the same ivory tools Miamiti once used.
"No, it was the women of the Bounty who were the strong ones. My foremothers knew the secrets to surviving and receiving the gifts of the island. Their ancestors had lived here before; we called it Hitiaurevareva, "the island far away." The mutineers didn't know anything about surviving on a tropical island. They were boys from England and Scotland."
Meralda has taken me by quad bike (there are no cars on the island) to one of her favorite places, Ghosty Valley, a lush oasis of green on the island's eastern side. We're on the hunt for one of its most venerated and reticent inhabitants, a castaway Galápagos tortoise named Mrs. T. A passing sailor left her behind half a century ago. But the tortoise is hiding, so instead Meralda is giving me lessons in survival.
She slings a yard-long metal bar into the ground and impales a brown coconut on it. With a quick snap, Meralda twists off the dry husk. A few seconds and cutlass swings later, she hands me half a coconut. The sticky, sweet water runs down my chin and chest, and the meat is delicate and spongy. She lets me try to open the next coconut and I nearly sever my fingers.
"I get my survival instincts from my Polynesian blood," Meralda says with a smile. "But I blame my mutineer blood for the cursing."
"Are there ghosts here?"
"There have always been strange happenings out here," she says as we push our way higher up the valley, through scraggly pandanus palms and wild banana thickets. "Pitkerners have heard sails flapping in the quiet; they've seen spirits rising up from the valley. They're probably the ghosts of the murdered men."
Fletcher Christian's paradise didn't last long, she explains. Within 10 years of arriving, all the Tahitian men and all the mutineers save one were dead, victims of jealousy and family feuds.
We eventually find Mrs. T contentedly sunning herself in a glade. Meralda slices open a juicy papaya, and the tortoise happily gulps it down.
Pitcairn, a British overseas territory like Bermuda and Gibraltar, has been called "the world's smallest democracy." And over the next few days, I meet almost all of the 48 residents. Most live around Adamstown, the island's only village. A handful of tin-roofed houses surround The Square, a shaded plaza bound by the courthouse (the bones of the mutineers are supposedly buried beneath it), post office, church, and public hall. During the day people gather here beside the Bounty's rusting anchor to talk. (Gossiping is punishable by a $50 fine; so is shouting "Sail ho!" in jest.)
Pitcairn was once a popular stopover for passenger ships and freighters between North America and Australia. But jet travel leapfrogged over the island, leaving it like a Kansas farming town bypassed by the new interstate. The occasional cruise ship still circles the island out of curiosity, but passengers rarely land here; the big waves and rocky shores make it too dangerous. Some years Pitcairn sees fewer visitors than the summit of Mt. Everest.
Even so, I soon discover the island is a very social place. During my four-day stay, I'm constantly invited to lunches and potluck dinners and picnics. One night, at Jay and Carol Warren's house, I join a crowd outside on the deck watching the lights of Adamstown twinkle below in the falling dusk. Half the island is here, and I catch snippets of conversation in the official language, English, and the local dialect, Pitkern, a sort of Creole mix of 18th-century English and Tahitian. "Wut a way you?" asks a woman. ("How are you?") "Care for some oink?" asks another, passing me a plate of ham, along with some pilhi, a local dish made of bananas, breadfruit, pumpkin, and potatoes.
One afternoon Meralda offers to take me up to Highest Point, the 1,100-foot peak of the island. She guns up the narrow ridge outside town, the track just wide enough for the quad. On our left, the island falls away into the jungled caldera that cradles Adamstown. To our right, the fern-cloaked shoulder sheers straight down to the neon-blue sea. I can't help but think of the dog-eared Pitcairn map in my backpack and the long list of disturbing names for local landmarks, cliffs like "John Fall," or "Break Im Hip," or "Minnie Off." A bay over the ridge from Adamstown even bears the last words of Fletcher Christian after he was gunned down by a Polynesian: "Oh Dear."
Just as I'm worrying "Jad Over Edge" will be added to the map, we emerge onto the broad summit. Stabbed down in the grass is a white signpost with arrows showing four-digit distances in kilometers to Paris, New York, Tokyo, and various points of the globe. The sapphire horizon of the South Pacific wraps around us, a great blue nothingness. The sky is empty, too. In fact, for the duration of my stay I won't see a single jet contrail arcing overhead. I feel like I'm peering over the edge of the world.
The view is different for Meralda. She's gazing out from the center of her world. "I wouldn't want an airport here even if they could build it," she says. "It would change the island forever." A shadow flickers across her face. "But if it meant we could see our families more often, then maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing."
Meralda hops back on her quad bike and kicks the starter. "It's late, and you've got a party to go to."
Andrew Christian is a seventh generation mutineer whose blood flows right down through two centuries from his namesake, Fletcher Christian. He lives alone atop one of the highest peaks on the island, Paratai Heights, in a house he hand-built. He's barely 30, with a black Prussian beard and ears hooped in silver rings and studs. When he reaches to grab my hand and welcome me, I can see the Polynesian tattoos rolling over his bare shoulders. Hollywood won't have far to go to cast their next Fletcher Christian.
The house is full of a different crowd from the Warrens, including some of the "outsiders," such as the island's newly arrived—and only—police officer, John. He's a Kiwi who served with the United Nations in East Timor and requested to be sent to Pitcairn. "I left the world's largest police force for the world's smallest," John shouts over Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." "I've always dreamt of coming to Pitcairn; this island is a legend."
That night, as I walk back to Meralda's, the full moon is up and shining so brightly the clouds cast dark shadows on the sea. I find myself thinking that maybe some of what's so intriguing about Pitcairn isn't what the island has, but what it doesn't have: no traffic, no crowds, no cell phones. (People call one another by radio.) I wonder about the isolation and size—Pitcairn is only slightly larger than Central Park—but remember what a woman told me at Andrew's party. "Pitcairn is the loneliest place in the world," she said, "But you're never alone. You're surrounded by people."
My time on the island goes quickly; Meralda is constantly on the go with me in tow. "Everyone thinks that island life is just sitting in a hammock under a coconut tree drinking piña coladas," she says. "We don't pay income tax on the island; instead we have a community obligation to work on projects. Everyone has several jobs. I've been a nurse, police officer, radio operator, storekeeper, and immigration officer. Now I'm a cultural teacher and I check the seismic equipment." One morning she slips on what looks like a baggy white fencing suit, and we head off to check her hives—she's also Pitcairn's beekeeper. The island's bees have never been exposed to pesticides and make the purest honey in the world—the Queen is said to be a fan.
The Queen's Navy did rediscover and sail to Pitcairn, but not until a quarter of a century had gone by. Of the nine mutineers and 12 Tahitian men, all but John Adams were long dead. Only the Tahitian women and their children remained. The Navy left the strange community in peace, but came home with a wild story. The legend of Pitcairn, the idyllic utopia, was born.
Beyond the legend, however, life here is challenging. A decade ago, the island endured a series of sexual-assault convictions. The population, which hit a high point of 250 in 1936, has steadily declined. No new settlers have arrived in recent years, and the population is aging. The only child on Pitcairn is 6-year-old Cushana, Meralda's niece. Once she finishes primary school, she will leave for boarding school in New Zealand. She shows me her goat one afternoon and laughs when it tries to butt me. Does she wish there were other children here? She does not. "I'm the queen," she beams, "the Queen of Pitcairn."
The Pitcairn Cushana is inheriting from Meralda's generation will soon be known for being something far greater than a quaint footnote in history. The United Kingdom has announced that it is establishing the world's largest marine sanctuary, with Pitcairn at the heart. Residents of the world's smallest democracy are the new stewards of a vast blue wilderness more than twice the size of California. A recent National Geographic ecologist who explored the area said that the waters are among the most pristine in the world, and full of species unknown to science.
Toward the end of my stay, Meralda lets me borrow her quad, and I drive out to St. Paul's, a rocky point on the island's east end past Ghosty Valley. It's a desolate, empty corner of the island; the ancient lava is blood red and cheese-grater sharp on my sneakers. It's my first time alone on the island, and I revel in the space. A cool wind blows up off the sea, and red-tailed tropicbirds wheel overhead. I climb down to the Olympic-size tidal pool shimmering like polished opal. With each swell rolling in against the basalt barricade, there's a canon-shot boom, and two seconds later, small geysers erupt inside the pool, air forced through hollow lava tubes. It's like God's own Jacuzzi. I swim out to the rocks and let the sun-warmed sea foam slide over my shoulders.
Floating in the clear waters of St. Paul's, pondering the future of Pitcairn, I have to smile. It would be a mistake for outsiders to underestimate the mutineer descendants. They're all survivors. It's in their blood.